Archive for June, 2016

Trump and the caning of Charles Sumner

Posted on June 23, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , |

In this our third post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, we look at another event that preceded the 1860 presidential campaign but cast a long shadow over it: the caning of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner.

As you know, Sumner was an abolitionist who gave a speech condemning the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May 1856. In his speech, Sumner excoriated the authors of the Act, which potentially allowed slavery into the North; these were Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. In his devastation of Butler, Sumner said in part,

The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery. For her his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator.

Brooks’ nephew, Preston Brooks, was a Representative to the House at the time. Declaring his uncle insulted, Brooks fulfilled the contemporary Southern ideal of chivalrous honor by waiting until Sumner was almost alone in the Senate chamber, then going up to him supported by two friends and stating “Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine,” and then began beating Sumner, who was still sitting at his desk, on the head with a heavy gold-topped cane.

Sumner fell to the floor unconscious and covered in blood as Brooks continued to beat him, while Brooks’ friends, Virginia Congressman Henry Edmundson and South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt, held back the few men present who tried to intervene. Keitt actually took out his revolver and threatened them. Finally, two Representatives were able to stop Brooks, and Sumner was carried out of the Senate.

Sumner’s recovery was long and difficult, and he was out of office for months. Brooks resigned when a motion to remove him was raised, then voted back into office by his constituents, and continued to serve until his sudden death in 1857.

Northern public opinion was beyond outraged: that someone could attack a U.S. Senator in the Senate and get away with it was beyond belief. Southern public opinion was jubilant: abolitionists who had been “suffered to run too long without collars [had been] lashed into submission”, according to the Richmond (VA) Enquirer.

Everyone expected that this event would break the camel’s back—if it did not start a literal war over slavery, it would start a legal war on slavery led by antislavery and, hopefully, formerly neutral Congressmen who would kill it through legislation. But that did not happen. In fact, very little happened as a result of the caning. Few Northern lawmakers wanted to be responsible for starting a war. But more importantly, even fewer had any faith left in the democratic system in the U.S. It had been taken over by the Slave Power, and compromise after compromise with slavery in Congress had made it impossible for Congress to kill it.

Here is what a New York Times editorial said about the caning on May 28, 1856, when hopes were high that such a completely out-of-bounds attack would lead to action:

…malignity always overreaches itself and neutralizes its bitterness by its own folly. The assault on Senator Sumner is a notable proof in point… If [Brooks] could have foreseen, as any but a maniac must have done, that for every blow inflicted upon the head of Mr. Sumner, the cause of Slavery must lose at the least ten thousand votes, he probably would have desisted from his foul and cowardly deed. …true to their instincts, and blinded by the madness that must lead to their utter defeat, [the South] has chosen to defend the outrageous scoundrelism of their self-appointed champion…

…Mr. Brooks may congratulate himself upon having done more to add to the [antislavery] Republican Party, and to give vigor and permanency to the Anti-Slavery sentiment of the North, than all the Free Soilers have done in Congress.

Flash forward to 2016 and Donald Trump, whose bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny have led him to make statements considered beyond the pale on a regular basis for over a year now. Each time he crosses a new line, editorials like the one above appear, predicting that now he has finally gone too far and will assuredly lose his following and the presumptive Republican presidential nomination. Democratic politicians have confidently predicted a drop in Trump’s poll numbers, with former supporters potentially moving to support Clinton instead.

Yet it has not happened. Just as Brooks went calmly on with the full support of his like-minded constituents, so goes Trump. Americans know that Congress is just as paralyzed and poisoned in 2016 as it was in 1857, often unable to address immigration, women’s reproductive rights, gun control, or the other issues that stand in for slavery today for the same reason Congress couldn’t act on slavery in the 1850s—one side would not let it. Proslaveryites (at that time almost all Democratic) had a stranglehold on Congress. That’s what people back then meant when they talked about the Slave Power. Just as the Republican majority today will not even allow a vote in the House on gun control, having imposed a gag rule on the subject, so the Democratic majority then would not allow a vote on slavery, having imposed a gag rule on that subject in 1834 (it was rescinded a decade later, but had a long-lasting effect). When Congress does address these important issues today, the conservative majority is almost assured that the vote will go their way, stripping more Americans of their civil rights.

As liberals look on with dismay and continue to await the moment when Trump actually says or does something that strips him of his popularity with conservatives, one can’t help thinking about Preston Brooks, and fearing the worst.

Next time—into the 1860 campaign

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act: 1854 and 2016

Posted on June 17, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Our first comparison in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign goes back a little to an article about the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

As you recall, the KNA overthrew the Missouri Compromise (1820) that established a line at 36°30′ north of which all states entering the Union would be free, and south of which would be slaveholding states. Stephen Douglas, the Democratic author of the KNA, wanted Nebraska to enter the Union free, but the territory was so large it extended south of the compromise (or, better put, appeasement) line and Southern Congressmen refused to let it enter as free. So Douglas split the territory in two, creating the Kansas Territory to be a potential southern state. Anticipating a howl of outrage from northern members of his party at turning part of a free territory into a slave territory, Douglas then proposed that the people of each territory be allowed to decide for themselves, in a vote, whether to enter the Union free or slave (this was called popular sovereignty).

The legacy of that decision is infamous in U.S. history. People who lived in other states went to Kansas to swing the vote, and violence between proslavery and antislavery interlopers gave the territory the name Bleeding Kansas. Abolitionist John Brown got his start in Kansas as an antislavery interloper who led a small militia that killed proslavery interlopers.

In 1854, when the KNA was passed, the nation was divided once again along sectional lines, and now we come to our comparison with 2016. As we said in our opening post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

When we read one of the many New York Times‘ editorials on the KNA, it rings eerily familiar. Substitute in “gun control” or “immigration”, or “war on Christianity” for “slavery”, or “liberal” for “Northerner” and “conservative” for “Democratic” and it could be an account of Congress in 2016:

Popular indignation at the passage of the Nebraska bill finds vent in various projects, some wise and some otherwise. …Cassius Clay [abolitionist and one of the founders of the Republican Party] proposes that every body who voted for the bill shall be treated to a social as well as a political crucifixion—and seeks to prepare the country for a dissolution of the Union. [Abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison [seizes] the opportunity to push [a] program of dissolving the Union and breaking down the Constitution. We hear men a good deal more sensible than any of these proclaiming their hatred of all compacts [agreements] which bind us to the Slaveholding interest, and declaring they will keep no faith with them.

…The champions of the [KNA] know perfectly well that they have acted in direct opposition to the popular will. The originators of the iniquitous measure have for months been as clearly persuaded that the great sense of the country is against this outrageous breach of honor and good faith, as they are of their own existence, yet they have accomplished it through recreant Northern votes. These Northern traitors prating Democratic cant have gone deliberately against what they knew to the the mind of the North. The smallest fraction of decent regard to honor and propriety would have led them to put it over till the sense of the country could be tested by another election. They were chosen to vote on no such question. Its coming up was not dreamed of by the people at large. When it was sprung upon the country, there was but one consentaneous cry of indignation throughout all the Northern land, in which honest and honorable men of all parties joined.

…A large portion of the honest and honorable feeling of the South was against it too.The palpable indecency of driving it through under such circumstances, was doubtless as much a matter of distinct consciousness to the majority that perpetrated it, as to the minority that resisted it, as to the country that cried out against it. They did it because it was in their power to do it—they had the Might and that they knew was all the Right they had.

The clear and seemingly accepted sense of the nation being firmly divided into North and South, each with a plan for the nation that is utterly opposed to the other’s, and anyone who dreamt of bridging the gap lacerated as a villain—all these are bitterly familiar to Americans today. So is calling for a “political crucifixion” of anyone outside one’s own faction. And, increasingly, so is the threat of the nation splitting over political ideology.

The KNA truly was a terrible piece of legislation, which justified this kind of outrage and made it understandable to call those who supported it traitors without honor or propriety. The issues we face in 2016 do not match up. 1854 was about enslaving human beings and breeding them for sale. 2016 is about whether to let non-white (Latin American) and increasingly non-Christian (Muslim) immigrants into the country. 2016 is about whether every American should own and carry a gun, and whether transgender citizens possess civil rights. These seem like lesser issues that could be solved politically by drawing on our national legacy of always extending more and more civil rights to our citizens and future citizens.

But that’s what makes 2016 exactly like 1854 or 1860—there is a growing contingent of Americans who want to stop extending civil rights to all U.S. citizens and future citizens. They want to roll back civil rights in this nation and reserve them to the few: the native-born, straight, and Christian. That is a kind of slavery, and that’s why the 21st-century sectionalism of liberal v. conservative is as potent and dangerous as the 19th-century sectionalism over slavery ever was.

Next time: Trump and Brooks

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Presidential campaigns, 1860 and 2016

Posted on June 9, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

Here we launch a series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign. We’ve often noted that the growth of a new kind of sectional tension in this country runs disturbingly parallel to sectional tension in the years before the Civil War; here we explore those parallels by going back to newspaper reports on the 1860 campaign and comparing what we find there to what we see happening now.

What is sectionalism? It’s a situation in which one part of a unified group begins to feel alienated, and to separate itself from that group, on the basis of geography or interests. Those interests usually become passions. In the two decades before the Civil War, sectionalism occurred as the South (geography) began to separate itself mentally and emotionally from the North because of the South’s commitment to slavery (interest), which the North did not share. Eventually, the North reciprocated by developing its own sectionalism, which rejected union with the South over slavery (see our post Northern sectionalism before the Civil War for more on that). Each geographic region defined itself in terms of slavery, embracing or rejecting it, and insisting that slavery was the one key issue of the day and for the nation. Eventually, sectionalism led to secession, and, as Lincoln said, the war came.

Today, sectionalism still has a slight geographic component, as southern state legislatures make a stand against liberty and justice for all (through state laws demonizing illegal immigrants, gay and transgender Americans, women seeking abortions, etc.) while most northern states do not. But geography has been trumped by interests: the real divide in the U.S. is ideological, between liberals and conservatives. Neo-conservatives, as they were called in the 1980s, found a stronghold in formerly Democratic southern states in the 1960s as the Democratic party under Johnson reached a pinnacle of civil liberty and social justice, particularly for racial minorities, that racist leaders of southern states and state politics could not accept. They moved to the Republican party, which, under Nixon, welcomed them as a bloc that supported the president’s and the party’s desire to stop civil rights legislation (on the basis that the federal government was overreaching and trying to “legislate morality”).

Conservatism had a boom under Reagan that moved it out of the south and into many white, middle-class homes around the country, as their inhabitants identified with Reagan’s image of the “real” America as white, self-supporting, and Christian, as opposed to everyone else, who was not white, on welfare (and abusing it), and non-Christian. Many white Americans also vibed to Reagan’s statement that the federal government was a curse and a burden (“government isn’t the solution to the problem; government is the problem”) and that it should be dialed way back to have minimal impact on people’s daily lives (i.e., no more social legislation). (See our post Reagan’s Farewell, 1989: We the People need no government for more on that.)

Many political leaders and people in the west seemed to embrace this new conservative message, as they saw themselves in a battle to the death with the federal government over access to and development of/mining on public lands, water, and protecting endangered animals.

Over the decades from the 80s to the 2010s, the new conservatism found strongholds in every part of the nation, wherever poor and middle-class white people felt disenfranchised and/or insulted by big business, immigrants, and/or liberals. To be fair, the movement is not entirely white; there are black and Latino conservatives. But the movement began with white people “taking back” their rights from newly-empowered minorities. For the past five years or so, the new dimension of sexuality has been added in, as conservatives generally identify as straight and feel their rights threatened and curtailed by the expansion of civil rights to gay and transgender people.

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either, although the south and west (particularly the Mountain zone) skew conservative while the northeast and Pacific Coast skew liberal. The midwest seems divided.

This new sectionalism has been an issue in every political campaign since 1980, but this year it is the be-all and end-all of the entire presidential election. And this is where the comparisons become striking:

—1860 was the year that sectionalism over slavery became the main issue of a presidential election. 2016 is the year that sectionalism between liberals and conservatives is the main issue.

—In 1860 the Democratic party fractured under the stress; the party split, nominating two different candidates: a Southern Democratic proslavery candidate, and a (northern) Democratic candidate who was on the fence but unlikely to abolish slavery. Today, the Democratic party vote may be badly divided between Sanders and Clinton.

—A new party emerged to take the place of the Whig party that had already been destroyed by sectionalism: in 1860 the Republican party was a party of radical social change dedicated to stopping the spread of slavery and “its eventual extinction”. Today, the Republican party is promoting radical social change by (presumably) nominating Trump as its candidate.

—In 1860, some people watching the campaigns were confident that the country would not split over it, while others tried hard to laugh off the idea, but no one denied that talk of civil war was in the air. In 2016, we laugh about people saying they’ll move to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win, and try hard to promote the idea that people whose candidate loses will put country ahead of cause and support the winner, but no one can deny that there are many voices saying they will do no such thing.

Next time we will get into the early coverage of the 1860 campaign and begin our comparisons, hoping as always to draw some useful plan of action from the exercise.

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